There’s a hole in the world like a great, black pit
And the Vermin of the world inhabit it….
— Stephen Sondheim, ‘Sweeney Todd’
They tell a lot of lies about London. Here’s one of them: during the Battle of Britain, with the Luftwaffe flattening the capital, those Londoners who were too poor to afford their own shelters were encouraged to take refuge on the platforms of the underground. The faded sepia pictures of families bedding down on the platforms of the Central line are still iconic, another representation of the dogged forbearance for which Londoners are renowned. We live in a city that has withstood two thousand years of invasion, rebellion, fires, plagues, wars ,and terrorist attacks and survived. Londoners knuckle down. We don’t grumble. We get on with things. We keep calm – as that resurrected bit of defunct military propaganda now plastering tote bags, tourist tat and novelty chocolates across the country gamely declares – and we carry on.
In fact, it didn’t happen quite like that. What happened was this: When the Blitz began, government ministers decided to close down the Tube during air raids, except for the use of a few officials. They didn’t want hundreds of thousands of refugees in the subways because they feared, as historian Andrew Martin puts it, that if the working class went underground “they might never come out again.” The shelterers, he notes, were “objects of patrician distaste;” signs were put up outside Tube stops forbidding them to enter. Then, on the 19th of September 1940, the British Communist party, who had campaigned against the ban from the start, launched a series of organized riots. They tore open the tubes and Londoners rushed to occupy the platforms as the bombs screamed overhead. After that, the government had no choice but to support the refugees in order to save face.
A lot of London’s secrets spill out underground. The guts of the transport system run from the glittering new Olympic fortress to the beleageaured financial district, which has only recently evicted its own anti-capitalist tent city, right out to Ealing and Croydon and Brixton – the boroughs that burned during a week of riots last summer when the Metropolitan police shot a young Tottenham man, Mark Duggan, in the face.
Forget the official face – forget the Olympic Park, the London Eye, or Buckingham Palace – if you’re a stranger in this city, there’s no better way to see it than to spend a day traveling the London Underground. It’s more expensive now that Mayor Boris raised the Tube fares, pricing many of the capital’s neediest people away from public transport altogether. But it’s still here, down in this strange otherworld, with its own rules, its own weather system, the warm winds blowing out of its tunnels, the garish avalanche of rotating ads, it’s here that the lifeblood of the city beats closest to the skin. Where better to take the pulse of a place than through its intestinal walls?
It seemed like a great idea at the time. When I told my editors I wanted to spend an entire day on the London Underground, I anticipated very few problems. I often ride the Tube just for fun, am nerdy about its intricacies to the point of getting an ill-advised tattoo on my back when I was twenty, and most importantly, I believe that you can tell a great deal about a city by riding its subway. The Moscow underground system, for example, was a flagship Stalinist project, and still hangs with chandeliers and sparkling marble as stray dogs run in the intersections. The New York subway, by contrast, is slow, inefficient, cavernous and filled with rats. It reeks of human excrement in the summer. Its one selling point is that it does, indeed, keep going all night, but city residents are still inordinately proud of the system and believe it the best public transport network in America. The Paris Metro is clean, pleasant, and absolutely incomprehensible to anybody who doesn’t speak French. Riding the London Underground is different again. The seats are cheaply upholstered and nestled close-together on the whispering trains, and the atmosphere one of formal yet familiar irritation like sitting in the living room with relatives you don’t like: shuffle up, avoid eye-contact, stare hard at your book or free newspaper until it gets late enough that people are drunk enough to actually talk to one another.
It really did seem like a good idea. I didn’t realize, before I started my journey, just how much the city has changed in the past six months since I last spent extended time on the underground. Under the glare of Olympics posters, London feels exhausted and resentful. After thirteen hours on the tube, so did I.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many
— TS Eliot, ‘The Wasteland’
Waterloo Station, 9 a.m., the thin end of a cold Monday morning.
It’s the busiest time of day at the busiest terminus in the oldest subway system in the world. Coming out of the underground here feels like being reborn slightly before you meant to be, squinting at the bright cacophony of light on tiles, the hollow disembodied voices ordering commuters around the terminus. They pour out of the tunnels, brushing lint and the dregs of sleep off their suit-jackets. If New York is the city that never sleeps, London is the city that just needs another five minutes, please.
Pigeons wander stunned as you come out of the Jubilee, the newest line on the 150-year-old-network, which seems to have been designed to resemble the interior of a space station as imagined by sugar-crazed children in the 1980s. You half-expect to see a bunch of stormtroopers rounding the corner, shepherding secretaries and office cleaners to their jobs. In point of fact, there are a lot more transport police hanging around now that the Olympics are just a week away. In fifty years, the high ceilings and harsh fittings might look dystopian, but now they just look faintly grimy, like everything else.
London, as James Butler observes at Pierce Penniless, is a filthy city in practice and in theory. You see it in every corner of the Tube system, despite the fact that the whole thing is far better maintained than the New York Subway. The dirt forms in layers here. It hardens here until you can polish it, a palimpsest of prettified grime. Several pre-Olympic campaigns have urged Londoners to “Clean up the City!” in preparation for the Games; big-name sponsor Pfizer ran a campaign on the underground starring actress Keeley Hawes snapping a huge pair of rubber gloves. “Fuck off,” Londoners seem to have collectively replied, as well they might in a city that has achieved worldwide fame for being perpetually on the edge of sinking into its own filth.
Lots of people have tried to clean up this city, ever since the Great Stink of 1858 prompted the invention of the modern sewer system to stop the Thames running with shit and cholera-ridden corpses. It was soon after that that they opened up the first tube lines, letting the overcrowded city stretch itself into the suburbs and provinces, bringing workers underground and into the city center. But instead of the center, I head South.
At half past 10, Stockwell station, where a Brazilian electrician was gunned down in 2005 by anti-terrorist police who’d followed the wrong brown man off the bus, is doing its best to be clean and uncontroversial. Gaudy posters for Coke and McDonalds plaster the white-tiled walls. As sponsors for the upcoming Games, they are unable plausibly to promote a healthy-living message and must instead resort to manic neon-bright exhortations about ‘greatness’, ‘dreams’ and personal progress. An enormous portrait of the queen grinning under her tiara hangs at the top of the escalators where police tailed Jean Charles De Menezes down to the platforms and shot him dead.
A “clean city” is what Olympic sponsors like McDonalds have been promised for the games: The entire aesthetic environment of the Olympic Park, public transport and surrounding areas will be purged of any brand-names not sponsoring the event, as well as any political slogans: the glittering multi-billion pound fortress squatting in Stratford, patrolled by private security, will apparently be a politics-free zone.
London calling, yes I was there too
And you know what they said, well
Some of it was true
— Joe Strummer
Camden town, 11 a.m. squeezing out of the tube alongside hippies in velvet coats and teenagers scuffing their New Rocks on the escalators.
At peak tourist-arrival hour, the bunting and promotional posters have even infested Camden Town, which is usually its own garish aesthetic otherworld of crust-punks, goths, and big-eyed, brightly-banged kids from the provinces on excursions to buy bongs and belts and skull rings from the Stables Market. William Gibson called it “The Children’s Crusade.” But like everywhere else in London, there are many different worlds in Camden inhabiting the same space and rarely touching, so that when the inner cities burned last summer, when kids in hoodies came out to smash up all the shops along Chalk Farm road, hand-wringing columnists living streets away in Primrose Hill were still able to ask, with genuine incomprehension: Where did these kids come from?
The next morning, crowds of overwhelmingly middle-class people organized online to sweep away the debris from Camden, Clapham, and Tottenham. Many of them crossed town from wealthier postcodes to do so. That day’s evening papers carried pictures of “broom armies” raising mops and a throng of white faces to the cameras, sweeping up last night’s scum. “Criminality pure and simple” is how the Prime Minister described the riots when he eventually flew back from his Tuscan holiday to deal with the situation. In the middle of an austerity summer with government cuts screwing the hope out of the young and poor in a city of vast and vicious inequality and systematic police repression, thousands of people patently refusing either to keep calm or to carry on could have no possible political context whatsoever. The riots were pure criminality, criminality that had to be made an example of, as droves of young people caught up in the looting were jailed for months and years for stealing bottled water and handling pilfered shorts.
Civil unrest of this sort could not possibly be permitted any political context. The current government is so convinced of this conclusion that just last week, courts banned the publication of a BBC documentary, “The Riots: In their own Words”, that claimed to have pinpointed some very clear and pressing reasons for why Camden Town was lately on fire. Instead, the BBC showed a patriotic programme about Spitfire pilots during World War Two. Clean, sparkling, and politics-free: that’s the London they’re selling. But there are other Londons, and sometimes they seep through to the surface.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe
— William Blake
King’s Cross, 4 p.m., in a station coffee shop not too far from where, about two thousand and three years ago, a bunch of Romans plonked down a camp and called it Londinium.
A man’s voice booms over the station tannoy, its practiced public-school plumminess familiar from tv talk-shows, rich and thick, like butter oozing over a toasted muffin: “”Hi folks! This is the Mayor here,” it says, “this is the greatest moment in the life of London for 50 years.” Boris Johnson, a right-wing television personality and professional semi-buffoon who was recently re-elected as Mayor, has recorded a number of announcements reassuring Londoners that the “huge pressure on the transport network” will be worth it, that we should keep calm, carry on and not dodge fares. It has become traditional, upon hearing these special broadcasts, to yell “fuck off, Boris!” as audibly as one dares. “Swearing at that Boris tube announcement is helping usually reserved Londoners bond,” wrote science blogger Alice Bell on Twitter. “It’s nice. Civic unity.”
Lisa Egan, a disability rights activist, has come to meet me here because it’s one of the few accessible terminuses on the Hammersmith and City line, and she wants to talk to me about maps.
All maps of the Tube are relative. In 1931, an engineer named Harry Beck came up with the idea of designing a map for the expanding underground network that had little relevance to complex geographical reality and worked instead as a circuit diagram, bright and simple to navigate. Most subsequent subway systems have taken Beck’s map as inspiration, but for travelers with disabilities, the picture is different. There are few stations you can use if you’re mobility-impaired or wheelchair-bound, like Lisa, and Mayor Boris Johnson has cut planned spending for increasing train accessibility to precisely nil over the coming years.
Lisa is four foot eight and fast-moving enough in her chair that commuters heading home early have to steer themselves quickly while not-looking at her with the studied not-looking that working Londoners reserve for anyone visibly distressed, disabled, poor, or mentally ill on public transport. Rolling her machine with practiced effort onto the Hammersmith train, Lisa and I talk about the fight to stop the right-wing Coalition government currently squatting in Westminster – the very shiniest stop on the Jubilee line – from slashing welfare benefits and driving the poor and sick out of the city.
She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she’s amongst the hundreds of thousands who will have an already pitiful level of state support taken away and be left to survive alone. The latest decision to cut further billions from the welfare bill was announced in the same week that the Chancellor confirmed that he would be preserving a tax break on private jets for the super-rich. None of that is about politics either, of course: it’s purely a practical solution to spending run out of control further down the line at Bank, the City’s financial centre. It is the poor, in the language of the Coalition, who are indulging in a “culture of entitlement.” Those who feel entitled to private jets can go right ahead. People on long-term disability benefits, meanwhile, are being prodded through a punishing and degrading series of “tests,” in which terminal cancer sufferers are routinely found “fit for work.” Multiple suicides have been reported where disabled victims have left notes explaining that without state welfare, they can’t continue. These tests, with their extraordinary and expensive fail-rate, are administered by Atos Origin, a company that is, without any apparent sense of irony, sponsoring the Paralympic Games this month.
Lisa tells me that she feels truly hopeless. That, for the first time since she can remember, she can’t see anything positive to look toward. She believes that more people will kill themselves, more people will suffer and slip away, and fewer people will care. Above us the Olympic posters read: Inspire A Generation!
The British Police are the best in the world –
I don’t believe none of these stories I’ve heard…
— Tom Robinson
The bodies are buried just below the surface here, sometimes quite literally. The corpse of Boudica, the Celtic queen noted for burning the city to the ground in AD 60, just 20 years after its founding, is reportedly buried somewhere between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross Station where thousands of eager teenage readers from all over the world gleefully concuss themselves every year looking for the Hogwarts Express. Aldgate, on the Circle and District, was built over an old plague pit from 1665, when the Bubonic Plague ravaged half the city before the Great Fire destroyed the rest the next year. Every schoolchild here still learns about the thick sores and the rats that carried the fleas that carried the plague, the smoking-out of the foul air, the screams of “Bring out your dead!” as the bodies became too numerous and infectious to do more than dump in the streets, and the despairing men and women who threw themselves into the Aldgate Pit to die. “They fell quite naked among the rest,” Daniel Defoe wrote in his Journal of the Plague Year, “but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind….poor and rich went together; there was no other way of burials, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this.”
There is ghost-architecture, too, on the Underground. The network is full of forgotten rivers trickling through the foundations of long-ago-levelled buildings over the streets, the Fleet oozing by under the Jubilee line, and boarded-up, disused, phantom stops where no trains have pulled in for decades. These include the old British Museum stop on the Central line, which is reportedly lousy with the spirits of Egyptian nobility from the hoard of pilfered treasures from every corner of the old Empire pressing down from above. We steal everything in this city, including our ghosts.
St James’ Park Station, 6 p.m. Three years ago a man was killed in London. This in itself is not news; people die here every day, and in the past two decades 1443 people have done so following contact with the police, although not a single Metropolitan Police officer has been convicted in the past two decades. Ian Tomlinson, however, was walking back through the City of London through the first big protest after the bank bailout, with his hands in his pockets, when PC Simon Harwood batoned him in the legs and pushed him to the ground. The newspaper seller and father of nine died shortly afterwards.
What makes Tomlinson’s case singular is that the Metropolitan police were shown, in camera-phone footage obtained by the Guardian, to have lied about the circumstances of Tomlinson’s death, and alleged to have fudged a preliminary inquest that gave the cause as heart failure. Although a second inquest ruled that Tomlinson was “unlawfully killed,” this week PC Harwood walked out of court a free man. Meanwhile, teenagers are still in jail for standing in the wrong place at a riot.
Faith in the legal system is fading here, especially in the run-up to the games, which have allowed the Met to deliver short-order sentencing to any young people suspected of loitering whilst unemployed. The scheme is being referred to as “instant justice,” and the implication that justice can be processed and delivered just as one might order a Big Mac is apt. Still, there are less than a hundred people outside Scotland Yard protesting the Tomlinson verdict. At the hastily-organised meeting point, earnest young people arrive on bicycles in twos and threes, elderly gentlemen saunter nervously past the barriers, and a couple of angry office workers hold handmade signs. One of them explains to an eager news reporter that if this was France, the station would be on fire by now. But this is London, and right now, London feels beaten.
Who killed Ian Tomlinson?” yells a young man in a leather jacket. “The police killed Ian Tomlinson!” his friends call back.
Outside the yard a line of officers in acrid yellow stands impassive.
“Who killed Jean Charles De Menezes?” – “The police killed Jean Charles De Menezes!”
One police officer studies her boots as if they might be about to kick off.
“Who killed Mark Duggan?” – “The police killed Mark Duggan!”
A livid sky on London
And like the iron steeds that rear
A shock of engines halted
And I knew the end was near
— G K Chesterton
Stratford, the end of the Central Line, at 9 p.m.
The terminus which will shortly become the gateway to the Olympic park now boasts a specially-constructed shopping center through which visitors will have to walk to get to the Games. Sponsorship messaging is thickest here, and the Lloyd’s Bank campaign features crowds of spaghetti-limbed cartoon-people cheering, clapping, and limbering up with fixed plasticine grins turned in uniform wonder toward the stadiums. It’s barely four years since the British treasury was obliged to bail out Lloyd’s bank to the tune of 21bn pounds, and the taxpayers still spend billions a year just keeping it afloat. But keep on cheering for Team GB with the cartoon-people. Keep calm and carry on.
Let’s talk a little bit about parasites. In the mid-1950s, the singer Maria Callas swallowed a tapeworm. Rumor has it that she did this on purpose, ingesting the embryonic parasite in pill form to help her lose weight. Callas did indeed lose over sixty pounds, whittling down her Mediterranean curves into the slender silhouette that was becoming fashionable at the time, as the tapeworm leached away her energy and resources.
I mention this because London is hosting the Olympic Games in much the same way that Maria Callas hosted that tapeworm. It seemed like a great idea at the time. It seemed like it’d keep us modern and relevant and beautiful. But now it’s eating us from the inside, squatting in the East End draining away billions from an economy already in a double-dip recession, and doing terrifying things to the body politic.
London, baby, you’re beautiful just the way you are. It’s tempting to see the city the way it sees itself sometimes, as an ageing diva, swelling and spreading and prone to hot flashes, painfully aware of losing its international relevance. London forgets that there is witchcraft in these old bones, and dirt, and the sort of power that accretes in any filthy old body with a tendency to consume its own young.
Police patrol the gates at Stratford. Soldiers are stationed on the walkways outside. The city isn’t officially under military occupation, but with more than 13,000 troops on the ground, it’s the greatest military presence in Britain in peacetime: a warship in the Thames and ground-to-air missiles set up on nearby roofs to the intense displeasure of local residents who are not at all reassured by the prospect of unauthorized aircraft being shot down over the East End. Enjoy the Olympics, or else.
The light is disappearing. Most of the people hurrying past the soldiers and shuddering McDonald’s ads just want to get home. Most of them have given up complaining about the Games and adopted a posture of mulish resignation. The East End of London is still terrifically deprived, and very little of the 9.5 billion invested in the Olympics will make it out of the Ring of Steel just visible through the station windows. Here, at Stratford, life expectancy is twelve years lower than it is in Marylebone, precisely twelve stops back along the central line.
I step outside to watch the sun go down over the stadium. It’s unseasonably cold and thundery and there are storm-clouds gathering over the Olympic park. This is London being its usual moody, dramatic self, piling on the pathetic fallacy so that I’ll have to write “storm-clouds are gathering” in an essay on the state of the city and mean it. But storm clouds really are gathering, and there is a pressure in the head here, a sense of being weighted down by circumstance.
I don’t know what to tell you. I love this place. It’s killing me to see it so depressed. If you’ve ever watched someone you care about more than anyone else in the world lie on the sofa staring at the ceiling for days, unable to move no matter how many hot drinks you make them, you know how this feels. You also know that ‘keep calm and carry on’ is one of the least helpful thing you can possibly say.
This week, the latest employment and growth figures showed that Britain is now in its longest double-dip recession since the Second World War. With up to 80% of planned austerity measures yet to kick in in one of the most unequal cities on the planet, the Olympics have so far failed to lift the London’s fortunes or its spirits. In these circumstances, the Games and their attendant jolly propaganda don’t just feel like an annoyance. The cartoon-people and smiling McDonald’s volunteers, the evidence of vast public expense somewhere behind enormous iron fences – it all feels shockingly inappropriate, like a ringtone on Remembrance Day. Like laughter at a funeral.
It’s enough. I catch the Central line home. On the way, I meet a young Olympic Steward in a fluorescent orange-and-purple jacket whose mask of exhaustion snaps to attention when he is engaged in conversation, something about which he has clearly been warned in training. “No comment,” he says when asked about certain employment scandals that have already disturbed the happy balance of the Olympic preamble. He tells me that everything is sorted out. Everything is going to be fine. People are keeping calm, and people are carrying on.
On either side of us, Asian schoolkids from Mile End stare at him as if he has arrived from another planet. He is clearly from London, just not their London. He grins like a man anticipating a heavy comedown from some marvelous new recreational drug. He is the only apparently happy person I have met in thirteen hours. It’s going to be fantastic, he tells me. Everyone’s so excited about the Olympics. Everything is going to be completely fine.